views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The King's Head Theatre
24th February 2015


Photography © Bill Knight

If the thought of going to the opera is intimidating because it's all "in foreign", then a nice bit of Gilbert and Sullivan may well be all that's needed to win you over. Heck, if the entire score from HMS Pinafore can stop Sideshow Bob's murderous rampage, the duo must be doing something right.

Ruddigore, rather than just (unsurprisingly) being written English, feels quintessentially English, and here Charles Court Opera take that feeling even further. The first half feels like it's set in any British seaside town, almost postcard perfect, and their second is subtly influenced by the fantastic institution that is Hammer horror. Add in the fact that several of the melodies have been made famous through pop culture and this is the closest that operetta gets to a reassuring giant hug. This is opera for the masses.

In a small place called Ruddigore, the very eligible Rose Maybud (Rebecca Moon) is interested in the equally eligible Robin Oakapple (Matthew Kellett), but he's too shy to ask her out and her little book of ladylike rules prevents her from being too forward. Ah, stalemate. Robin's foster bother Richard Dauntless (Philip Lee) promises to play go-between but when he sees Rose's beauty for himself, he can't help but ask her to marry him.

Ruth (Susanna Buckle) and Zorah (Andrea Tweedale) aren't fussy as to which brother Rose marries, as long as she gets hitched soon, and Rose's long line of suitors give up on her and, well, think about marrying one of them. They're always the bridesmaids (they're professionals, don't you know?) and never the bride and they're frankly getting a little tired of that. Richard's act of betrayal leads to the family closet being emptied of its skeletons, and amongst other fun facts, it turns out Robin is somehow connected to the bad baronet of Ruddigore, the evil Sir Despard (John Savournin). Never fight with a sibling, all kinds of dirt always comes out...

Photography © Bill Knight

Musical director David Eaton delivers a faultless performance on keys, and despite apologising in advance for Moon's vocals, he really doesn't need to, there's no hint of illness in her or anyone else's delivery. The singers are all word-perfect and pitch-perfect - and in a venue the size of the King's Head, believe me, any tiny flaw would have been easily heard. The duet between Roderic (Savournin) and his former love, Dame Hannah (Amy J Payne) is hauntingly beautiful, and there's some great comedy created by a believably insane Mad Margaret (Cassandra McCowan). And of course, the litmus test of any Gilbert and Sullivan, the patter song, was knocked out of the park.

Choreographer Phillip Aiden captures the fun about this piece and impressively does so in a small space. The back wall has been brought forward for what later transpire to be very good reasons, but this leaves Aiden with only a narrow strip of floor to pack full of twists, turns and hornpipes. Turns out this isn't a problem for him, and all the movement is spot on - never feels cramped. As well as bringing the back wall forward and creating a raised platform, the set is adorned with a garland of uneven lightbulbs, and a strip of lights borders the set. This allows Nic Holdridge to create some very genteel, soft lighting effects in the first half, which go well with James Perkins' very pastel design. It's all very cutesy and twee, in the best possible way, of course.

At 135 minutes plus an interval, this is a slightly abbreviated version of Ruddigore, but director Savournin has made some smart choices, adapting the piece by cutting flab rather than anything that would harm the story by its omission. The only real criticism I have is that this has been publicised as opera with a Hammer twist, and the influence isn't particularly obvious. I suppose given Ruddigore isn't as well-loved as Gilbert and Sullivan's other pieces, it's a hook to draw crowds, but tricks like that really aren't necessary: the quality of this piece holds its own. And whilst all the performers demonstrate an impressive amount of talent, whenever Old Adam (Simon Masterton-Smith) sings, you realise perhaps Savournin could have better utilised the entire ensemble - Masterton-Smith's deep, silky voice is rarely heard, but always appreciated.

While admittedly hammy and overblown, it all falls on the right side of silly. There is very much a line, and Savournin never crosses it. This is a production which although slickly executed doesn't take itself seriously. It's an ideal introduction to opera for the uninitiated, and quite simply, a fun night out for all.

Ruddigore opened on 18th February and runs until 14th March 2015 at the King's Head Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Highbury & Islington (Overground, Victoria)

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